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Pastor says his beliefs clash with war in Iraq

Episcopal Rev. Dan Webster
Episcopal Rev. Dan Webster
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

God and country, the expression goes. But what happens when a man of the cloth feels like he's being asked to choose between those two allegiances?

The Rev. Daniel Webster has been struggling with that choice since the winter of 2003, when his country began gearing up for war. It's a choice an increasing number of people of faith are being forced to make, he says, as the war in Iraq drags on. And so he sometimes attends protest rallies.

On Thursday evening he stood in a Quaker circle in front of the Federal Building, silently praying for peace. On Aug. 22, he stood in Pioneer Park as part of a protest during President Bush's speech five blocks away at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Rev. Webster was the man in the clerical collar, carrying a sign that read "Jesus said, 'Put your sword away.' "

His is a moral dilemma dismissed by Utahns who choose to see protest as the temper tantrum of aging hippies and "nutcakes," as Sen. Orrin Hatch described them.

"I'm out there because I believe very deeply that my God and my belief in Jesus Christ compels me to speak up against the atrocities of this war," he says.

Rev. Webster is an associate priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City and is a member of the national executive council of the Episcopalian Peace Fellowship. The local chapter of the EPF is named after Paul Jones, a former Episcopalian bishop in Utah during World War I. Jones was an outspoken pacifistic— too outspoken even in a denomination known for its peace activism — who was forced to resign his position after Salt Lake City Episcopalians complained about his public stands. He went on to found the Fellowship of Reconciliation and, later, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

Every major Christian religion except the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has registered its opposition to the war in Iraq, Rev. Webster says. He points to his own church's statements against "preventive war" and its belief that war as a way to solve disputes among nations is "un-Christian."

It's possible to use Biblical scriptures to justify anything, including war, he says. "But I look at the life of Jesus Christ and I see a life of non-violence. I see someone who says God doesn't take sides in disputes." . . . So I have to ask a very fundamental question: 'What would Jesus do?' "

It's becoming clearer, Rev. Webster says, that there were several peaceful options other than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yes, he supports the troops, including his nephew who is serving in the Marines but has not yet been deployed to Iraq. But he believes that President Bush, in statements before the war that both terrorists and weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, "violated the trust of the young men and women who swore they would defend with their lives their country."

Although protestors in their 50s were dismissed as "aging hippies" by some news media after the Aug. 22 peace rally, Rev. Webster says his own history in the mid and late 1960s included short hair and shirt-and-tie outfits at both a Catholic high school and a Catholic seminary. Still, in 1965, when his conservative classmates attended a rally in support of President Lyndon Johnson's war policies, Webster stayed in study hall, unwilling to back a war he felt Christ would not approve of.

There is no question, he says, that "you have to have some kind of police force to bring bad guys to justice." The war on terror, he says, "started appropriately by going into Afghanistan and seeking the people who perpetrated 9/11." He thinks of that not so much as a war as a police action. "Hopefully, bringing them to justice doesn't mean executing them."

What's the solution in Iraq now that we're there? "I think we have to look at the prophet Colin Powell," Rev. Webster says, "who said 'if you break it, you own it.' We've broken Iraq and now we own it and it's up to us to try to fix it." But that repair should include international and multinational groups, he says. "It would be far better if there were Muslim countries helping in the constitutional process in Iraq."

At the Aug. 22 protest rally at Pioneer Park, Rev. Webster says he was offended by signs and language and gestures that were disrespectful to the president. "I understand the anger, but giving in to anger is no different than giving in to the seduction that war will solve all of our problems."

Like the rest of the All Saints Episcopal congregation, he prays for President Bush, Mayor Rocky Anderson and other elected officials. "We pray for them to exercise the trust that has been given them for the common good. And the common good is not just our country or our city or our state, it's for all God's creatures."